On January 8, a Russian aircraft carrier group led by the Admiral Kuznetsov made a short visit to the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has maintained a small naval supply base since the Cold War. The Kuznetsov had sailed from Severomorsk, near Murmansk, on the Barents Sea on December 6, together with the frigate Admiral Chabanenko, emergency sea tug Nikolai Chiker and three small tankers. In the Mediterranean Sea the carrier group was joined by one more tanker, the corvette Yaroslav Mudri from the Baltic Fleet and the corvette Ladni from the Black Sea Fleet. In Tartus, the Russian ships received fuel, water and food. Only Chabanenko, Ladni and the tanker Lena docked at Tartus. Kuznetsov is too big to dock at Tartus and remained anchored off the coast, accompanied by Nikolai Chiker. By January 10, the Russian ships had left Syrian waters. Ladni immediately steamed back to Sevastopol. Kuznetsov and Chabanenko are expected to return to Severomorsk in early February (RIA Novosti, January 10).
Russian naval officials maintained that the trip by the carrier group was pre-planned and is not connected with “the internal Syrian crisis.” However, Russian state TV insisted the voyage was a demonstration of solidarity with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the face of Western pressure and a demonstration of naval capabilities (Vesti, January 9). The Russian Ambassador to Qatar, Vladimir Titorenko, said on Russian state TV: “A number of countries, including the Gulf States and Turkey, are supplying the Syrian opposition with weapons and money.” According to former foreign minister, prime minister and Russia’s chief spy Yevgeniy Primakov, “armed pseudo-democratic forces” in Syria, as before that in Libya, were encouraged by the US to change the regime, but “Russia with China will not permit direct armed intervention in Syria, as in Libya” (Rossiya 24, December 30).
The al-Assad regime did its utmost to use the short Russian naval visit: a Syrian military delegation led by the Defense Minister General Dawood Rajiha arrived onboard the Kuznetsov anchored off Tartus and described the visit as a show of solidarity, according to the Syrian state news agency SANA (SANA, January 8).
Russia has indeed been showing solidarity with Damascus and has continued to supply weapons despite the massive carnage inflicted by the Syrian military on the population. But the carrier group stayed in Syrian waters only for a couple of days and sped away not to return in the foreseeable future. The Kuznetsov, Russia’s only carrier, visited Syria on its last leg.
The Kuznetsov is a 60,000 ton ship that may carry an air wing of up to 50, including some 26 jets and 24 helicopters. On its present voyage the Kuznetsov’s majestic flight deck is almost empty – only eight Su-33 fighters and two Ka-27S helicopters for search and rescue missions, if any Su-33s are lost (Interfax, November 30). Not only is the present Kuznetsov air wing minuscule, it entirely lacks anti-submarine Ka-27 PLO helicopters and even more importantly – Ka-27RLD (Ka-31) early warning flying radars. Without any long-range radar capability, the Kuznetsov is not a combat ship, but a sitting duck – a large, uncomfortable and rusty tourist ship. The Su-33 fighters are not produced any more, so the Kuznetsov is now carrying the last flight worthy Su-33s and they will soon be mothballed after the carrier returns to port within two weeks.
The Kuznetsov’s main steam turbine engine has been breaking down constantly during the ship’s service, which began in 1992. The Kuznetsov has been a largely immobile and useless ship with three major shipyard repair periods lasting over six years since 1996. The sea salvage tug Nikolai Chiker is shadowing the Kuznetsov during its present tour to tow the hapless carrier back home if the main engine breaks down again. After completing its last voyage the Kuznetsov will be disarmed and go to the Severodvinsk shipyard for a major refitting that is officially planned to last until 2017 or end later – if ever (NVO, April 22, 2011). Su-33 production has been terminated, so the Kuznetsov must be refitted to carry MiG-29K fighter jets being developed for India. The Kuznetsov’s main anti-ship weapon, the supersonic Granit cruise missile, is also out of production and must be replaced. The main engine must be replaced – the carrier will be virtually gutted to the bare hull and rebuilt from scratch. When it ever sails again, al-Assad will be long forgotten history.
Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy ambitions are majestic, often matching those of the great Cold War Soviet Empire, but its capabilities do not match. As the Potemkin carrier group sailed in the Mediterranean Sea, a fire gutted a nuclear strategic ballistic missile submarine, the Delta 4 class Yekaterinburg. The Yekaterinburg was in dry dock at a military shipyard near Murmansk undergoing repairs, when the fire began on December 29, apparently caused by negligence during maintenance work. The submarine burned for 24 hours. The outer hull and the torpedo section were badly damaged and the submarine’s hydro-acoustic (SONAR) system was utterly destroyed. The Delta 4 carries 16 SS-N-23 liquid fuel ballistic missiles, each armed with four 200 kiloton warheads. The missiles and torpedoes were removed as the Yekaterinburg was placed in dock and the two 180 megawatt nuclear reactors were shutdown, so there were no explosions or radioactivity leaks. No one knows when the Yekaterinburg will be fully operational again. First it must be towed from the Kola Peninsula to the Severodvinsk shipyard and this is risky before the end of May because of ice in the White Sea (Kommersant, January 11).
The Delta 4 is today the backbone of the Russian nuclear strategic navy and losing one submarine out of six is seen in Moscow as a serious embarrassment, undermining nuclear deterrence capabilities. The Kuznetsov was built to defend with its fighters the strategic nuclear submarines in the Barents Sea against NATO anti-submarine aircraft armed with nuclear underwater charges and to keep away US attack submarines with its Ka-27s during a nuclear war, when all ground airfields have been destroyed by a nuclear attack. Now the Kuznetsov is spending its last service days in a useless PR voyage to the Mediterranean, while a submarine it was deigned to defend is gutted by fire caused by negligence: a sorry rundown shadow of a once awesome force.